Eunuchs. Treachery. Slavery. Sex. Sudden, extreme violence.
An episode of Game of Thrones?
Not this time.
We are talking about the Ottoman harem of Turkey’s greatest sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. His reign was the inspiration for a long-running Turkish TV series that had audiences all over Eastern Europe hooked for years, just as we were by HBO’s eight-year saga.
Suleiman’s empire was centred not on King’s Landing but at Constantinople – now Istanbul – and it stretched from Persia to the very gates of Vienna. The Keeper of Men’s Necks, as he was known, was far more powerful than his better-known contemporaries, Henry VIII or the fabled Moctezuma in the New World.
Outsiders imagined his harem as a paradise of beautiful women and murmuring fountains. In reality it was a twilight maze of dark-panelled rooms where the sun seldom penetrated, a hotbed of jealousy and cruelty.
Every year the Sultan’s men went to the four corners of the empire looking for the most beautiful women they could find. These unfortunates were brought back to this grim prison as the Sultan’s slaves.
Whatever position in life these young women held before this, whether high or low, they were now nothing; the Sultan’s playthings. At the beginning of Suleiman’s reign, they weren’t even that; Suleiman had his favourites, and rarely visited his Eski Saraya.
For his concubines, there were only two ways out of this dreary place. They might be gifted in marriage to one of his senior army officers or government ministers; a rare few became one of the Sultan’s four official wives.
Most of the girls simply grew old in the harem, neglected and forgotten.
Imagine though – as I did – that a new girl was not only beautiful, but also intelligent and hungry for power herself. There was such a young woman in Turkish history. Her name was Roxelana.
It must have soon become clear to Roxelana that the other women sharing her predicament in the harem were her competition. Only one was destined to be mother to the next Sultan and attain a unique position of privilege and power in the country that had enslaved her.
She decided she wasn’t going to rely on kismet, fate, to decide. She would make her own luck.
One day, she waited with a hundred other girls in the court of the harem, pearls and jewels in her clothes and hair, glittering in the sun. The tradition was this; as the Sultan passed, if he wanted to spend the night with a girl, he would take a handkerchief from the sleeve of his robe and drape it over her shoulder. Should that happen, it provided the chosen slave girl with a golden opportunity.
She might have just one night with the Keeper of Men’s Necks and thereafter be forgotten; or she could take the first step on the road to absolute power. It was imperative that she become pregnant and bear the Sultan a son.
Get that far, and she would then be playing this deadly game in earnest. She would become one of the select, just a few heartbeats from power.
She would also be in deadly danger.
Because, though the Sultan could only ever have four wives, just one of those women would be the mother of the next Sultan, the so-called Sultan Valide. Become the Valide, and that woman’s power would be unquestioned, she would govern the entire Harem and her son would reign supreme in the country that made her a slave.
If she failed?
By Ottoman law, she would end up in the bottom of the Bosporus, drowned in a sack. Her sons would be killed.
These were Roxelana’s choices. This was the game.
This was her real-life game of thrones.
HAREM is part of my EMPIRE SERIES
and is available on Amazon.
Read an EXCERPT here